HOW would Sam Steel, one of a brace of Miss Trunchbulls on Pick Me Up Theatre school play duty, sum up Roald Dahl’s joyous girl-power romp Matilda: The Musical Jr.
“It’s insane!” he decides. “There’s certainly anarchy. Everything that you think will happen won’t happen!”
Pick Me Up’s bright young things – some as young as six – are revelling in Robert Readman’s ebullient production all this week at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, led by Sam Steel and Jack Hambleton’s outrageous headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, and Aimee Dean-Hamilton and Juliette Sellamuttu’s Matilda, the precocious, courageous pupil with special powers and limitless imagination, as they alternate performances.
“It’s all about beating the child bully with the help of loveable teacher Miss Honey as they take on the hateful Miss Trunchbull, the Olympic hammer-throwing champion of 1969,” says Robert. “Not that any Olympic Games were held in 1969, but the line in the song rhymed!
“Miss Trunchbull is apparently based on Alastair Sim’s headmistress in the St Trinian’s films, when he was so good playing it as a character – and also playing the twin brother – that you don’t think of the headmistress as male or female, just as a character.”
Jack adds: “It’s a woman but she’s so butch! Play Miss Trunchbull as a woman and it doesn’t work, but play it as a man who happens to have boobs and big shoulders and a hairpiece, it works!
“I try to bring out the most grotesque elements of myself and there’s a bit in there too of the teachers that I don’t like! It’s about getting the physicality right and the tone of the voice.”
When Sam is playing Miss Trunchbull, Jack takes the role of Matilda’s dreadful dad, slimy car salesman Mr Wormwood, and vice versa. “We’ve watched each in rehearsal but I don’t think we’ve ever discussed the roles with each other,” says Sam. “We just instinctively took a bit of each other’s performance.”
Robert chips in: “But they’re physically different, their voices are different, their mannerisms are different. Sam is blond, Jack darker, so they have their different hairpieces too.”
Likewise, Aimee, ten, and Juliette, nine, are “very different actresses”, says Robert, who welcomed the chance to have contrasting Matildas. “They didn’t audition for Matilda, but when did auditions for singing roles, they came out of the pack,” says Robert.
“I was kind of expecting to get a small role, so it was a bit of shock,” says Aimee. “But not like an electric shock!” says Juliette, who felt “very surprised” to be picked for the title role.
If Aimee could choose a special power, it would be “maybe healing people”. Juliette first liked the thought of being able to use the swish of a hand “if someone is being naughty”, then changed tack. “I’d like to make inanimate objects animate, like asking a stuffed animal to barge its way out of a window,” she says.
Juliette, whose father is Sri Lankan and mother, Polish, has been living in York for a year. “Before I came here, in Sri Lanka, I did a line as a witch in a small assembly piece for Halloween, when I was at Gateway College in Colombo,” she says.
Aimee, meanwhile, has performed with one of York’s leading amateur societies. “I’ve done shows in theatres with Steve Tearle for NE Musicals York,” she says.
On Readman’s stage design, bedecked in a multitude of letters to reflect bookworm Matilda’s love of words and spelling, Sam and Jack are throwing themselves with gusto into the appalling behaviour of Miss Trunchbull.
“It’s more interesting that she’s not just a villain, she’s an absolute monster,” says Jack. “It’s probably the most evil person I’ve played, which is a nice contrast after playing Adrian Mole – and I get to throw a girl [Amanda Thripp] by her pigtails!”
Please note, Amanda is played by a doll at this juncture, one of several little tricks up Robert Readman’s sleeve that add to the fun and games of a delightfully unruly show with a gleefully rebellious book by Dennis Kelly and smart, fun, bouncy songs by Tim Minchin, replete with such titles as Naughty, Chokey Chant and Revolting Children.
Pick Me Up Theatre in Matilda: The Musical Jr, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until Sunday. Performances: 7.30pm, tonight, tomorrow and Saturday; 2.30pm, Saturday and Sunday. All SOLD OUT. A special performance of songs from a new musical, Prodigy, featuring the cast of Matilda, opens each show. Box office for returns only: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.